Time for celebration as arts centre clocks up 30 years of entertainment
Published at 07:41, Wednesday, 30 October 2013
THIRTY years on from the day arts minister the Earl of Gowrie unveiled a plaque and declared the new Queen’s Hall Arts Centre ‘sensational’, the political wrangling that almost sank the dream has long been forgotten.
But for the perseverance of a doughty group of campaigners, however, there would probably be a yawning gap where Hexham’s theatre and art galleries stand today.
The argument for a new library had been accepted by Northumberland County Council’s amenities committee, but one of its members, Coun. Eddie Hall, wasn’t having the rest of it. “Lots more has been piled on top!” he complained.
The country was struggling in the financial straitjacket of the late 1970s and early 1980s and Coun. Hall wasn’t wrong in demanding justification for what was rapidly turning into a £1.3m spend.
The saga had begun eight years previously, in 1975, when members of Hexham Amateur Stage Society suggested to Tynedale District Council that the defunct building, formerly the Queen’s Cinema, be turned into a theatre.
Two years later, the idea was resurrected by the county’s director of education, Michael Trollope; there was a paucity of arts provision in Northumberland that needed remedying, he said.
Naming five towns where arts centres could be built, he identified Hexham as the priority, thanks, in no small part, to the fact it needed a new library too. It would make sense to have the two under one roof, he said.
That proved a call to arms for a notable group of councillors and local residents that included Don Jowett, Nora Handcock, Tony Reid, Patrick Eavis and Tom Newman. They understood the vision.
While the purchase price of the building was only £72,000, the annual £300,000 running costs and £142,000 debt charge were just some of the big figures continuing to fuel the debate.
Aware the vote at County Hall was going to be a close-run thing, Don Jowett and the rest of the newly-formed Tynedale Arts Council launched a petition and 2,000 people signed it.
The Hexham Courant, a staunch supporter of the project throughout, also played its part, publishing a strongly-worded leader just before the council meeting.
Those in favour won the day, 26 votes to 22.
Councillors had ultimately been reassured by the fact that while the bills might be mounting, the building had been valued at £4.9m for insurance purposes.
The new Queen’s Hall Arts Centre finally opened on Saturday, October 22, 1983 – the first such facility between Newcastle and Carlisle.
Its first artistic director, Peter Kyle, said: “I really don’t think the people of Tynedale appreciate how much they are getting.”
The final count included a library, a theatre, green rooms, exhibition spaces and a cafe.
And the equipment installed was also second to none: a £22,000 sound system, lighting boards capable of supporting up to 100 stage lights and a £13,600 Steinway grand piano paid for by the Arts Council and an anonymous well-wisher.
The first production mounted in the new theatre was the rather surreal Enchanted Places, a ballet based on AA Milne’s tales of Pooh Bear and Co and performed by the Janet Smith Dancers.
Perhaps it is the second production that people will remember, though – the two night extravaganza of English music that drew in around 1,000 performers and visitors.
A collaboration by 14 different music societies across Tynedale, it brought the Queen’s Hall alive on November 3 and November 4 that year. It was called, quite simply, Celebration.
Published by http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk
This week in... 1949Friday, December 9, 1949...
A workman was buried alive while digging a drain in the Prudhoe Urban Council's housing estate at Oaklands.
Workmates rushed to the aid of 50-year-old Richard Barclay, of Stocksfield, when the wall of the trench he was digging collapsed.
They managed to dig his head and shoulders free before finally pulling him from the earth. He was found to be suffering from shock and bruising.